Guest Columns

Industry Issues

The anatomy of forward leading dairies

John Frey

John Frey is director of dairy value development strategies at Phibro Animal Health Corp. He grew up on his family’s Pennsylvania dairy and received undergraduate and master’s degrees in business administration. He guides Phibro’s dairy development efforts throughout the dairy value chain.

U.S. dairy farms have faced unprecedented challenges in the last year. In the face of these numerous challenges, many defied the odds of business closure seen in other industries. Dairy farms are continuing a legacy of quality animal care, management of land and water resources, and the production of safe, wholesome milk.

The vast majority of U.S. dairy farms are family owned and operated businesses, and many are or will soon be entering the fourth generation or beyond of family ownership. This makes the resilience of the more than 30,000 U.S. dairy farms all that more remarkable. It’s estimated that 3% of family-owned businesses successfully transfer to fourth-generation ownership. The thousands of dairy farms navigating generational transition and producing nearly 220 billion pounds of milk each year is a testament to the leadership and dedication of these families. This along with a keen understanding of changing market demands driven by evolving consumer attitudes and food preferences is impressive.

More than ever before, consumers are interested and engaged with their food choices. They want to know where it comes from, who’s producing it, how it’s being produced and how people, animals and the planet are being impacted. They buy food brands that are purpose driven and reflect their values. Which dairies not only survive but thrive in this kind of environment? Forward leading dairies that get back to the basics of fundamental leadership.

• Strategies for success

Successful dairy farms, like other successful businesses, plan well. This includes taking a step back to define purpose, asking questions like who are we and why do we exist at our farm? What do we stand for? What values drive us? Answers to these questions are foundational to decision-making and involve engaging employees along the way to positively impact the entire culture of the dairy. I’ve had the opportunity to work with many dairy families who understand the importance of farm organizational culture and empowering employees as part of that process.

Forward leading dairies build and implement conservation, water and environmental care programs to protect our natural resources. They pride themselves on being good neighbors and getting involved in preserving their communities. They’re active beyond the farm, lending their voices to important issues and policy matters.

Ensuring an exceptional work environment for their employees is also paramount.

Technology and innovation is a priority. Leading dairies look for new ways to enhance and achieve optimal animal care, housing and nutrition, and to implement stewardship priorities to ensure a sustainable and safe milk supply. Some of those innovations include robotic milking systems, precision feeding, planting and nutrient application, and data management for animal health that monitors feed intake, animal activity and production levels.

Forward leading dairies also assess and implement plans to address risk within their business — and that includes many things from farm margins to animal health and biosecurity. It also includes pursuing new levels of transparency and brand building, which involves engaging with consumers to communicate and earn trust.

Consumers are bombarded with information — and often misinformation — about how food is produced. And milk alternatives continue to gain momentum. Active outreach and transparency are key to gaining and maintaining their confidence in the dairy products they’re consuming.

• Defining priorities and legacy

The approach of forward leading dairies involves strategic steps to strengthen their businesses from the inside out. In 2018, Phibro set out to meet with eight to 10 families across the U.S. to work with them to clarify purpose and values as the foundation of a strategic planning process as well as defining stewardship priorities. This exercise took us across the country from New York to Texas and provided us the opportunity to engage with remarkable people.

Each family committed to give us the better part of the day, meeting to discuss the broader dairy value chain and explore the foundation of what it is that motivates their planning, their priorities and the “why” that underpins all that they do. What we experienced were leaders who demonstrate character and humility, who are motivated by a desire to keep consumers coming back to dairy and to create a brand and legacy of doing the right things to ensure that continues.

The program we conducted with those initial dairy farms grew. We’re nearing 50 dairies through an initiative that is now appropriately branded as Our Dairy Values and is acknowledged as a program serving the mission of the National Dairy FARM Program.

It has often been said that the legacy of any entity is dependent upon sound and effective leadership. U.S. dairy farmers are demonstrating that leadership at home, in their communities and across the dairy value chain. They have established themselves as the trusted resource for dairy information and, according to The Center for Food Integrity, are considered among the most trusted resource to ensure a safe food supply.

We’re at a time in history when dairy farmers no longer quietly fly under the radar. Consumers are shining a bright light on food production, and the U.S. dairy industry has so much to be proud of. If the industry is to be sustainable long term, it requires forward leading dairies that both know and communicate why they do what they do and are proud to share their story.


The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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